Archive for the ‘ Exodus’ Category

Putting up tents

Tuesday January 30, 2007

From the cartoons you see of people camping it looks like putting up a tent can be a bit of a mission. I wonder whether the hardest part is intentionally first, so that anyone who won’t be able to survive outdoors for a week is detered at the first hurdle and makes it home safely before nightfall. Camping psychology, though, isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to think about a tent which took a lot more effort to set up properly, the tabernacle which a large chunk of Exodus (roughly ch25-40) is all about. The instructions for this tent don’t come with diagrams and often seem completely dull and irrelevant. How can I benefit from them? (I should say, as is often the case, most of this is pinched from other people and I’m hugely grateful to them for showing it to me.)

Firstly, I guess it’s important to remember throughout what is the purpose of this tent. I don’t think it’s explained until after it’s been built (though I’m happy to be corrected on that) but any Jew reading the account would know what it was for. As the climax of the first half of Leviticus is God’s law in chapter 20, the climax of the second half is God dwelling amoung his people. 40:34 says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” God himself lived in the middle of the Israelite camp, and this tent was being built for him.

I think this gives the meaning to the meticulous detail of the design. God is coming to live in this tent, so it has to be right! What’s more, God has to decide what’s right. While God gifted craftsmen (31:1-11) to do the work he didn’t let them sort the interior design. He specified what he wanted exactly and expected them to do it. God is so different and so perfect that the Israelite’s attempts to create something wouldn’t have been good enough. The only way the tabernacle would work is if they followed God’s design. So while reading that the altar was five cubits by five cubits by three cubits and made of acacia wood (27:1) may not be directly applicable, as I read it and the other details I can praise the character of my God who is so holy that only perfection can be a dwelling for him.

What really confused me, though, was that after the design is given (ch25-30) it is all repeated! 35:4-39 record every detail of the construction of the tabernacle – and it’s all the same! Why not, I wondered, just say “and they made the tabernacle according to God’s original design”? What can I gain by reading it all again. The attention to following every detail of God’s instruction is commendable and should be emulated, but I think that’s making the Old Testament about me rather than about God. Can I learn about God from this repeat of the details?

Well, let’s step back from the lists for a moment and look at what happens in between. It’s big! Even as Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving God’s law and the design of the tabernacle in which God will live amoung the people the people are giving up on God. Exodus 32 tells the story of the golden calf – Aaron made a calf for the people and they made it their God. This was a trashing of the very first commandment that God gave to Moses – “You shall have no other gods before me” (20:3). God wants to destroy them and make Moses into a great nation (32:10) which would have been perfectly inline with his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and surely would have been just. Moses asks God to relent, and he does. In 33:1-3 God says he will keep all the people alive and extends to them the promise of the promised land. However, he says that he won’t go with them but will send an angel to lead them. This is grace to a people who don’t deserve it.

But there is more! Moses intercedes again and God graciously agrees to go with the Israelites into the land. I just can’t think of words that sum up how gracious that is. God would have been perfectly just to destroy them for their great unfaithfulness, but is going with them into Israel. He gives Moses the law again and reminds him of the key points of the covenant and it is at this point that Moses gives the detailed account of the construction of the tabernacle.

Okay, that interlude was anything but brief but I think it sets up what’s amazing about the second tabernacle description. It is exactly the same! Before that may have seemed dull, but in light of the idolatary of Israel doesn’t it show complete forgiveness and a fresh start? Not only is God going to stay with his people but he’s going to do it exactly according to the previous plan! Down to the last material and dimension of the tent. So while reading again that the altar was five cubits by five cubits by three cubits and made of acacia wood (38:1) may not be directly applicable, as I read it and the other details I can praise the character of my God who is so gracious he completely forgot the sin of his people.

The holiness of God and the grace of God from a list of instructions – who’da thunk it? Of course the other thing to remember (if you need more) is that all of this is just a picture of the Holy Spirit – God living inside Christians (not just in the camp) forever. That means we need to be perfectly cleaned by Jesus’ blood, and it also means that our sin and rebellion won’t change the plan. Praise God!

Meat pots

Wednesday January 24, 2007

I’ve just been in a Bible study on Exodus 15:22-17:7. In brief, the Israelites have just seen how great God is, and now they’re not trusting him to provide but are grumbling and wishing for the good old days (of slavery, babies being killed and crying out to God) in Egypt. There are two particularly helpful places to go to understand this passage. Psalm 95 is a warning not to repeat what the Israelites did in the desert and Hebrews 3-4 expounds on Psalm 95.

There are three blocks of grumbling: for water, then food, then water again. My first instinct was to feel sorry for the Israelites the first time – after all they’ve not had any water for three day, they hadn’t yet seen God miraculously provide water for them before, and it’s not obvious from the passage that God was upset with them. Indeed, coming to God through Moses was surely the right thing to do even if grumbling was the wrong way of going about it. As the story progresses, though, they get worse and worse (despite seeing more and more of God’s provision) and the third time (at “Massah and Meribah”, 7:7, cf Psalm 95:8) they reversed God’s testing of them (15:5) and put God himself to the test (17:2, Psalm 95:9). The Israelites didn’t do well, and the warning of Psalm 95 is “do not harden your hearts” as the Israelites did.

But exactly what heart-hardening were the Israelites guilty of? Hebrews 3:13 seems to exand, saying “that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin”. We see this in work in Exodus – in 16:3 the Israelites deceive themselves saying how good things were back in Egypt (“we sat by the meat pots”). They were under the impression that if they were still in Egypt things would be better. They also made out that God wouldn’t provide what he had promised he would, in 7:3 they said Moses (and so God) had brought them out of Egypt to kill them.

It’s quite easy to think the Israelites were muppets – they so quickly forgot how bad things were in Egypt and how powerfully God had already provided for them. But we do the same all the time. So there were two challenges for us, to help us avoid hardening our own hearts. The first: what is our “meat pot”, the thing we think would be better if we weren’t a Christian. For me at the moment, I think it’s praise from other people. I’ve had a load of opportunities to lead things and I’m grateful for them and have loved doing them and having chances to serve. But I also want to be able to point out how amazingly spectacularly well I’ve done and have everyone think I’m, well, amazing and spectacular. My heart tells me that I deserve it, and that I would be far better off if I didn’t have to give glory to God. That is the deceitfulness of sin, and I want to be aware of it and guard against it.

The second part of the challenge is to work out what we God has promised, but I don’t trust him to provide. Thinking over the last few days, I reckon the answer is sanctification – especially with regards to prayer. I’ve been really trying to improve my praying recently but, though I’ve seen God improve me in amazing ways over the last year, I don’t really trust him to be able to make me better at praying. He can, and he’s promised he will so again that is sin’s deceitfulness. I don’t want any of it!

Hebrews says that I need to hold on to my original confidence to show that I share in Christ (3:14). I am glad of the reminder to search and destroy where I’m not trusting God so that I am not hardened by sin’s deceitfulness, and so I can “strive to enter that rest” (4:11).

Exodus 1

Friday October 20, 2006

Exodus begins with a reminder of the state at the end of Genesis. Jacob’s entire family had moved to Egypt where Joseph already was. Jacob and Joseph were dead by the time the narrative of Genesis closed, and now we read that Joseph’s entire generation (all of Jacob’s children) died. “But” (however bleak things seem, Exodus will never let us be morose for long) “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly” (v7). There is no explicit reference, but this is another pointer back to Genesis. In Genesis 12:1-3 God promised to make Abram a great nation, a blessing which was then repeated to his son Isaac and his son Jacob, so we would expect Jacob’s family to be growing. What’s more surprising is that God didn’t promise only blessing to the family but also trials. In Genesis 15:13-16 God told Abraham his offspring would be servants in a foreign land and “afflicted for four hundred years”. Surely those Israelites who remembered this word must have been encouraged by the fact that God’s plan wasn’t falling apart but was being worked out even by Pharaoh, and even more so that he had promised it would end. That is some of the history behind Exodus, now for the story.

The new king did not remember that Joseph had saved the land of Egypt and is now worried that his family are going to harm it since they are so numerous. Interestingly, the climax of his concern is that they would “escape from the land” – something he brought about by seeking to avoid it. It is because he made their lives unbearable that God rescued his people – though of course that is always how God had planned it.

The first of Pharaoh’s three plans was to make the Israelites slaves who would work hard for Pharaoh and so their spirits and strength would drain. Conversely, the population “multiplied” and “spread abroad”, which meant that the Egyptians “were in dread of the people of Israel”. Looking back as we can, it is clear that God’s hand was involved in building up the nation of Israel so the Egyptians would have been wiser to fear God. Their response, instead, was to force the Israelites to work even harder.

Pharaoh’s second plan was even crueler. He summoned the Hebrew midwives and commanded them to kill any new-born Israelite sons. As with the previous plan, the response in the text is “but” – God would not let this plan succeed either and the midwives refused to follow orders. The result was blessing for the midwives (whose names have been recorded to this day) and that the Israelites “multiplied and grew very strong”. Ironically, Pharaoh’s plan to wipe out the men who he thought were the threat was thwarted by women – a theme that continues in chapter 2.

Whether the midwives were right to lie when they were called in front of Pharaoh (or even, if we want to try to slip out on a technicality, whether they did) causes debate. I’m not really going to get into it. Narrative is meant to be narrative and isn’t primarily to teach theology or ethics – though of course it does both. A couple of comments though: it was an extreme situation where the future of God’s salvation history hung in the balance, it was before the commandment not to lie had been given and they were commended not for what they said but their fear of God (v21). Certainly this can’t be used to argue that lying is a small thing.

Pharaoh’s third plan was equally vile – and one that all Egyptians could join in with. All young Israelite boys were to be thrown into the Nile – which was a semi-God to the Egyptians. And here the narrative switches to “a man from the house of Levi”. There is no decisive defeat of Pharaoh’s plan with God. The agony for the Israelites and suspense for the reader will continue until it is revealed whether the Nile-god could defeat Israel’s God.

Heavenly Father, I praise you that you can order the entire of history for your ends – the salvation of many many people. I praise you that you have complete authority over all natural and supernatural powers and will not be bested. Thank you for the promises you have made to us – to save us from this world into your perfect Israel. Please help me to take hope and to trust that everything, whether or not I can see how, is your plan for your world. Amen.

The Truth is in Exodus…

Tuesday October 10, 2006

Credit where credit is due, and in terms of my Bible understanding there’s a huge amount that I owe to a lot of people. Specifically to Exodus, I’m going to be writing these studies along with a series of studies of Exodus that I’m doing at the student group of my church The Bible Talks. I’m sure that a lot of what I come up with will be based on things that are discussed there. Over the summer, I also received a number of sermons on the early chapters of Exodus at Carey Baptist Church, and those ideas may pop up from here to there. Finally, I have the ‘Bible Speaks Today’ commentary on Exodus by JA Moyter – which I will refer to as BST from here on. Now that that’s dealt with, what’s going on in Exodus?

There are many ways of splitting the book into large sections for analysis, but one clear division comes right in the middle. The first 19 chapters are narrative, detailing God’s rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and bringing them to Mount Sinai. In chapter 20, the well known Ten Commandments are given to the people. The remaining 20 chapters are devoted to further laws, and the details of how to build the Tabernacle – God’s temporary dwelling place which the Israelites were on their travels.

But what are we to make of it? Ancient history may be interesting, but at first glance it seems irrelevant to my life. The laws are dismissed by many as having neither interest nor relevance. Yet, if we are to believe Luke 24:27 that Jesus began with Moses when teaching the disciples about himself (and, indeed, the New Testament teaching that the Old Testament history and law all find their fulfilment in Jesus) then we must do more than scratch the surface. In honesty, though, it doesn’t take too much effort to see how God’s sovereign ordering of the history of Israel teaches Christians about the gospel. To illustrate, let me tell a story:

God saw that his people were in slavery, so raised up a prophet, a ruler and deliverer to save them. In a display of his power God defeated the authorities who wanted to keep his people in slavery and rescued them by the death of a lamb. He thwarted all of the attempts of those same authorities to recapture his people. He gave them instructions on how to live – which were always proceded by his saving grace, and failures to comply were always followed by his forgivness. He began to lead them through trials which were designed to test and refine them, and he went with them through it all – dwelling amongst them to strengthen and guide them.

Was that the story of Exodus, or the story of Christians today? It was both – at that general level the stories are exactly the same! God so inteligently authored the history of the Israelites so that it would picture the far greater salvation that was to come through Jesus – who is the far greater Moses. And that’s just the broad-brush picture of the book, so who wants to come inside and find what greater wealths are in the details?